Benefits Professional of the Year creates a balance for Akamai employees

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In the highly competitive, highly demanding tech industry — notorious for fast-paced projects and harried employees — work-life balance often seems like a myth.

Not only do those environments leave many employees feeling overworked and burned out — PayScale research finds that employees who work at tech companies are among the most stressed — but they often make it difficult for workers, particularly women, to easily juggle work and home life responsibilities, like caring for a family.

It was a workplace challenge shared by Akamai Technologies, the global content delivery network service provider. And it was a challenge Sarah Sardella set out to address.

“We operate in a fast-moving industry, and for Akamai in particular, our network needs to deliver for our customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all over the globe,” explains Sardella, the company’s senior director of global benefits.

Akamai employees are scattered all over the world: The company employs more than 7,000 people across 29 countries; roughly 3,600 of those workers are in the United States. Half of Akamai’s U.S. employees are located in the firm’s headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.; the other half are spread out across 20 locations. That means that jobs aren’t 9-5; meetings often span multiple time zones and continents; and nontraditional schedules and bringing work home is commonplace.

“It’s no surprise that our employees can feel like they need to be ‘on’ all the time,” Sardella says, “and that means work and life frequently blur together.”

That’s why, over the last few years, Sardella and her team set their sights on adding a number of work-life and family-friendly benefits that support flexibility — from caregiving benefits and backup day care to a paid family leave policy and telework program (Akamai has also been offering unlimited PTO since 2007). Those were in addition to Akamai’s already-enviable suite of benefits, which includes a robust health and wellness program, tuition benefits and an employee stock purchase plan.

Those efforts helped increase employee satisfaction by 6%, created a better workplace environment and landed Akamai on a number of “Best Places to Work” lists — as well as helping the company address its gender-diversity problem. They also helped earn Sardella — who in her nine-year stint at Akamai has overseen the evolution of benefits from 1,500 employees in 13 countries to its current size of 7,250 employees in 29 countries — this year’s 2017 Benefits Professional of the Year title.

Attracting women in the industry

Historically, the tech industry hasn’t been synonymous with female employees. Akamai shares the same situation: Men make up 76.5% of the company’s workforce, Sardella says, and diversity and inclusion has been a struggle. Balancing childcare responsibilities with work priorities has often been identified as a major cause of the gender imbalance in tech.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 90% of people have missed work due to family responsibilities, for what the Northeast Business Group on Health estimates to be an average of six missed days a year.

“There has been this glaring challenge in front of us in terms of diversity, and we wanted to address this a little more intentionally,” Sardella says. “Gender was a natural place to start looking at. From a benefits standpoint, you don’t want to say caregiving is a women’s thing, but in practicality, childcare benefits, flexibility, paid family leave … some of that can be attractive to caregivers, who are more traditionally women.”

Sardella found the solution in a number of benefits: A telework program called Akamai Anywhere that allows workers to do their jobs entirely off-site; up to $5,000 to help with expenses per adoption (families are able to use twice); a $500 voucher toward hiring an au pair; and a suite of family care benefits through provider

Through the Care@Work program, all U.S.-based Akamai employees get unlimited premium membership to — which provides resources to help employees find ongoing care for their kids, parents, pets or home and access to senior care planning services to help them evaluate senior care options for elder parents or other relatives. Services also include subsidized backup care — 15 days per year per employee (in-home by nanny and at designated childcare centers) and a 10% discount on childcare at in-network centers.

By offering benefits that help support them, Akamai hopes to not only retain and engage talented employees, including women, but also to attract future workers.

“A competitive benefits package is essential in attracting and retaining talent, especially in the high-tech field, where talent is scarce,” she says. “Some benefits are table stakes at this point — things like insurance and a retirement plan. It’s the programs that go beyond the foundational benefits that typically serve to differentiate one company from another. Those are also the things that employees tend to talk about the most.”

In May, Akamai rolled out its most recent benefit, a generous paid family leave policy aimed not just at new parents, but anyone needing to care for a family member. Employees with at least three months of service are eligible for up to 10 weeks off for maternity leave, paternity leave, adoption leave or leave to care for an ill family member. Birth mothers also get eight weeks through the company’s short-term disability insurance; all told, 18 weeks. At the same time, the company expanded its paid military leave from two weeks of paid leave for employees taking part in military duties to up to six months of paid leave.

“We took a long time to decide what to do with that [leave policy] and get the data on what’s happening there,” Sardella explains. “There are companies doing different and very generous things, but we wanted to do what was right for our company.”

Akamai is right on trend — even ahead of the curve — with paid parental leave. It’s one of the hottest benefit trends, industry insiders say, though it’s still not as widely adopted as expected.

Only about 13% of private-sector employees have access to paid family leave, government numbers estimate. Still, with the U.S being the only industrialized nation not to mandate paid leave for mothers of newborns, smart employers are trying to fill the gap.

The research speaks for itself as far as the benefits of employer-provided leave policies: A Deloitte survey found that 77% of workers say that paid family leave could sway their choice of employer. An EY survey found that more than 70% of employers offering improved leave policies reported an increase in productivity.

Sardella says feedback among employees, so far, has been especially positive.

“An employee approached [our chief HR person] recently and was so thankful because we changed our family paid leave program, and he and his wife just had a baby,” she says. “[When he was on leave], his manager called him and said, ‘Guess what, you are getting six additional weeks on top of the four you had planned.’ And the guy said it changed everything — his wife had a difficult delivery, and he was able to be there for his family.

“To hear those stories, it means so much,” she says. “Administering benefits has its own challenges, and doing it well is its own feat, but being able to look at your company and figure out what they need and get creative about how to address that, and stay competitive and stay cost-effective — that’s the fun stuff.”

It’s not only fun, but instrumental in adding value for workers.

In the firm’s latest engagement survey, 83% of Akamai’s U.S. employees and 78% of global employees reported satisfaction with benefits. U.S. numbers are up 5% from 2012; global numbers up 6% from 2010.

“That’s above benchmark and that’s around the world,” Sardella says. Comparatively, in a 2016 survey of 600 U.S. employees across multiple industries by the Society for Human Resource Management, 68% of employees reported satisfaction, while just 57% reported satisfaction with family-friendly benefits.

“Does that mean our programs are better than every other company out there? No, they’re not,” she continues. “But [those numbers] tell me we have the right packages, and employees are understanding what we’ve got and they’re valuing it.”

Valuing indeed. Lifted in part by its generous benefits — which Sardella says have dramatically changed the workplace culture — Akamai consistently ranks among the Best Places to Work by a variety of outlets, from Forbes to ComputerWorld.

Even on Glassdoor — the website where employees and former employees anonymously review companies and their management — Akamai’s page reads like a company advertisement. On maternity and paternity leave: “The best I’ve seen.” Unlimited time off: “The best thing.” Health insurance: “Amazing! Great deal.”

“They are competitive with all of the big tech companies, so their benefits package is awesome,” one Cambridge employee wrote last month. The company’s overall score on Glassdoor is 4.4 out of 5.

Still, it’s “not about making headlines,” Sardella says. “It’s never been about that. It’s about doing the right things so that employees come to work and think, ‘I appreciate this because I value it and understand it and it’s making a difference in my life.’”

Changing the culture

Right now, Sardella is working on taking the benefits framework available to U.S. employees — both family-friendly benefits and wellness, a passion project of hers — and expanding it to its other countries. “Because it has changed the company and the culture, now employees are asking for it; they’re craving it, which is the perfect situation because now we can deliver what they want instead of saying, ‘Here, you need this.’ So there’s a demand we’ve created. And now we’ll be able to deliver on it.”

Akamai’s wellness program pairs very well with its focus on work-life balance, Sardella says, especially when it comes to shifting company culture. The program, which launched in 2014, includes everything from fitness challenges and wearables to financial wellbeing (free one-on-one financial coaching and financial education classes), and free onsite meditation and yoga classes.

Since its wellness program began, the number of employees who say Akamai cares about their health shot up 37% (from 46% in 2014 to 83% in 2016), while, in the same time frame, those who said Akamai encourages them “to lead a healthy lifestyle” increased from 29% to 72%. Additionally, 73% of employees say Akamai Wellness has had a positive impact on company culture.

Sardella says that’s partly due to the creative and fun nature of certain activities — events like its recent zombie-themed run, for example.

“Things like wellness and caregiving benefits … that’s where we can get creative,” Sardella says. “Some of these things we have to do to be competitive in this space, and some of this we did because we want to make sure we are creating an environment that is fun and engaging and is supportive of people’s personal situations — making it easy to show up at work and do their best.”

Getting creative with messaging is also a big priority for Sardella. The nearly 20-year benefits veteran says she struggles with a nearly universal problem for benefits managers: Getting the message through to employees.

“At the end of the day, if you keep adding stuff, it’s just more stuff that people don’t understand,” she says. “It’s really about repeated messages over and over, and hitting them in different ways.”

That’s why Sardella launched and relies on monthly “Benefits Blasts,” emails that highlight a benefits offering and explain why it’s important and how employees can use it.

Whatever the project, Sardella says, putting employees first and making a real effort to make their lives better is what being a benefits manager is all about.

“Can we do certain things better? Of course,” she says. “But from a trend standpoint, our satisfaction ratings have gone up. When I look at what I’ve done at Akamai, I’m really proud of it, because I can see in that metric alone that people are happier than they were before. And being in the center of that has been really exciting.”

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